Tag Archives: Judaism

Whose Religious Liberty?

Well, finally! A lawsuit just filed in Florida raises an important and far too frequently ignored aspect of the First Amendment’s religion clauses. What happens when “religious liberty” becomes a code word meaning “Liberty for my particular religion’s doctrine, but not for yours?”

The Supreme Court majority that (according to the leaked draft opinion) will overturn Roe v. Wade within the next few weeks is composed of Catholics who have been very vocal about the importance of protecting religious liberty–as they evidently define it. The problem is, their definition of liberty differs from that held by a very large number of Americans who believe that all citizens are free to follow the doctrines of their particular religions. When applied to the issue of abortion, for example, people whose beliefs prohibit it are protected from measures requiring it, and people whose beliefs allow (or even, in some situations, require) it can follow their beliefs.

In other words, if your beliefs prohibit abortion, you don’t have to have one. If they don’t, you can.

That definition of religious liberty is at the heart of the lawsuit filed in Florida. According to the Religion News Service, 

A new Florida law prohibiting abortion after 15 weeks with some exceptions violates religious freedom rights of Jews in addition to the state constitution’s privacy protections, a synagogue claims in a lawsuit.

The lawsuit filed by the Congregation L’Dor Va-Dor of Boynton Beach contends the law that takes effect July 1 violates Jewish teachings, which state abortion “is required if necessary to protect the health, mental or physical well-being of the woman” and for other reasons.

“As such, the act prohibits Jewish women from practicing their faith free of government intrusion and this violates their privacy rights and religious freedom,” says the lawsuit, filed last week in Leon County Circuit Court.

The lawsuit adds that people who “do not share the religious views reflected in the act will suffer” and that it “threatens the Jewish people by imposing the laws of other religions upon Jews.”

The new Florida law has exceptions only for terminations necessary to save the life of the mother or prevent serious injury, or for a fetus with a fatal abnormality. It does not contain exemptions for pregnancies resulting from rape, incest or human trafficking.

The Rabbi of the synagogue that filed the lawsuit was quoted as saying that when separation of religion and government crumbles, religious minorities often suffer. And he noted that DeSantis had signed the law at an evangelical Christian church.

This lawsuit is yet another illustration of an element of the expected decision that has received far too little attention: it goes to the very heart of current constitutional jurisprudence, which is concerned with drawing a line between those matters that government can properly regulate and those that are to be left to the individual. Reversal of Roe attacks the conceptual underpinning of a doctrine known as “substantive due process,” which is focused on where that line must be drawn, and the very simple–and very profound–question: who decides?

In a free country–a country that takes liberty seriously–who gets to decide what prayer you say, what book you read, who you marry, whether and when you procreate?

For the past fifty years, with some hiccups, American law has answered that question by respecting the rights of individuals and religious communities to determine those and similarly personal issues–issues that the Court has dubbed “intimate”–for themselves. I would argue that the right to make our own personal, medical, political and religious decisions in the exercise of our individual consciences is the proper definition of liberty.

(Decisions to forego mask wearing and other decisions that endanger others, not so much.)

America is currently going through a wrenching transition. Religious and racial groups that were once so dominant that minority communities and their beliefs were (at best) marginalized and ignored are losing their cultural dominance, and many members of those groups are hysterical about it. Others are simply clueless–so insulated within traditional ways of understanding the society they inhabit that they are unable to understand the claims of those who differ–as Jewish law differs from much of Christianity on the issue of abortion.

“Freedom for me, but not for thee” isn’t freedom at all. It’s privilege, and privileges can be withdrawn. What’s that observation we civil libertarians love to quote? “Poison gas is a great weapon until the wind shifts.”

Either religious liberty is liberty for adherents of all religions, or it isn’t liberty at all. This lawsuit illustrates the danger of letting government make decisions that favor the doctrines of some religions to the detriment of others.

 

Star Trek Culture

Popular culture, by definition, is of the moment–movies, television programs, music and other entertainment that reflects contemporary concerns or embraces current social preoccupations. Many examples–probably most–have limited staying power; even fewer can be shown to have influenced the development of the culture rather than simply reflecting it.

Star Trek is one of those; it continues to exert significant influence over the broader culture. (Disclosure: I’m a huge fan.)

The original series has been followed by several others incorporating creator Gene Roddenberry’s humane and very explicit moral themes celebrating the pursuit of knowledge, justice, and mutual understanding. Trek’s various iterations promote diverse, open and welcoming cultures populated by people committed to reason, tolerance and the common good.

An interesting article from the New York Times explored Jewish influences on the social vision that animates the Star Trek universe. it was prompted by an exhibit mounted by The Skirball Cultural Center, a Jewish museum in Los Angeles.

Many fans of the show are aware that Spock’s signature “live long and prosper” greeting, with its distinctive hand gesture, originated from a Hebrew blessing that Leonard Nimoy first glimpsed at an Orthodox Jewish synagogue as a boy and brought to the role.

The prominently displayed photo of that gesture linking Judaism to Star Trek culture helps account for what might seem to be a highly illogical bit of programming: the decision by the Skirball, a Jewish cultural center known mostly for its explorations of Jewish life and history, to bring in an exhibition devoted to one of television’s most celebrated sci-fi shows.

The Times pointed out that Jewish influence didn’t stop with the Vulcan blessing; according to one of the writers quoted in the article, Jewish values and traditions were often on the minds of the show’s writers as they dealt with issues of human behavior and morality.

“A lot of Jewish tradition — a lot of Jewish wisdom — is part of ‘Star Trek,’ and ‘Star Trek’ drew on a lot of things that were in the Old Testament and the Talmud,” Gerrold said in an interview. “Anyone who is very literate in Jewish tradition is going to recognize a lot of wisdom that ‘Star Trek’ encompassed.”…

Jessie Kornberg, the president of Skirball, said that the center had been drawn by the parallels between Judaism and the television show. “Nimoy’s Jewish identity contributed to a small moment which became a big theme,” she said. “We actually think the common values in the ‘Star Trek’ universe and Jewish belief are more powerful than that symbolism. That’s this idea of a more liberal, inclusive people, where ‘other’ and ‘difference’ is an embraced strength as opposed to a divisive weakness.”

The exhibition explored the outsized influence of the Star Trek vision on American culture. As one of the individuals quoted in the article put it,  “‘Star Trek’ has endured and inspired people because of the optimistic future it presents,” and especially the moral vision it promotes. Brooks Peck, who helped put the original exhibition together, observed that a Star Trek exhibit at a Jewish museum wasn’t as far-fetched as it first seemed.

“Skirball faced a bit of a challenge in trying to explain to its audience how ‘Star Trek’ fit in with what they do,” he said. “Happily it completely worked out. I had always hoped that Skirball could take it. Skirball’s values as an institution so align with the values of ‘Star Trek’ and the ‘Star Trek’ community.”

The operative word is values. Star Trek’s influence is a direct result of its coherent and appealing value structure. Those values were influenced by Judaism, but they are also congruent with the message of other non-fundamentalist religions and non-theistic philosophies: commitment to an open and welcoming society, a respect for intellect, science and truth, and a fierce advocacy of social justice and the common good.

The crews that populate the Enterprise and other Star Trek vessels are visual representations of the worst nightmares of the Hoosier culture warriors I wrote about yesterday, and of the retrograde throwbacks who attacked the U.S. Capitol. They are filled not just with diverse humans, but also diverse species, working together with civility and mutual respect in a society that places an especially high value on the ongoing search for knowledge and exploration.

Americans have a choice. We can emulate the ignorance and disordered bigotries of people like Donald Trump, or we can aim for the enlightenment values of Star Trek characters like Jean Luc Picard.

We can join the Neanderthals who are resentful of “others” and terrified of being “replaced”— or we can choose the humane and affirming values that animate Star Trek, humanist philosophy, and many liberal religions.

Values that will help us Live Long and Prosper.

 

 

A Link And A Prayer…

Tonight, Monday, October 4, at 7:30 p.m. I will be on a panel (via Zoom–link below) discussing the impending threats to reproductive choice, from Texas to Mississippi.

https://us06web.zoom.us/j/96415122645

Here’s the description, and for those who want to “attend,” the information for RSVPing:

Rabbi Dennis Sasso hosts a conversation regarding reproductive rights after the controversy related to the abortion laws in Texas. Rabbi Sandy Sasso will moderate the conversation and share the Jewish perspective with guests Dr. Leigh Meltzer, Obstetrics & Gynecology Physician at IU Health, and Emerita Professor of Law and Public Policy Sheila Kennedy. R.S.V.P to jgoldstein@bez613.org or (317) 253-3441.

For those who would like to see the discussion but can’t make tonight’s Zoom presentation,I’m told the session will be recorded, and will be available on the Congregation’s You Tube channel. (Who knew congregations had You Tube channels!)

My brief introductory remarks mostly reiterate points I’ve previously made on this blog, but in case any of you have missed my “take” on Texas, etc., I’m pasting a rough draft below. I anticipate a fairly lively discussion following the introductory remarks from the three of us.

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There are three things we need to understand about the context of today’s legal debates over abortion—one philosophical, one historical, one sociological.

Liberal democracies are grounded in the libertarian premise that we are all entitled to make our own moral choices unless we are harming the person or property of someone else. In order to be considered legitimate in a diverse liberal democracy, legislation banning or requiring certain behaviors on moral grounds should reflect widespread public consensus—That’s why the First Amendment’s religious liberty clauses, properly understood, forbid government from imposing the religious beliefs of some Americans on others.

When it comes to abortion, that consensus does not exist.

Historically, the “pro life” movement was not, as popular mythology suggests, a reaction to Roe v. Wade. It wasn’t until 1979—a full six years after Roe—that evangelical leaders, goaded by Paul Weyrich, seized on abortion as “a rallying-cry to deny President Jimmy Carter a second term.” Objecting to abortion was seen as “more palatable” and more likely to motivate religiously conservative Christian voters than the actual motivation, which was denial of tax exemptions for the segregated schools established following the decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

Those origins persist. Sociological research confirms that Whites who score high on measures of racial resentment and racial grievance are far more likely to support strict limits on abortion than whites who score low on these measures. Research also confirms that people active in the “pro life” movement are much more likely to be committed to a patriarchal worldview in which control of reproduction, and female sexuality in particular, is important to the maintenance of the gender hierarchy they support.

The history and research go a long way toward explaining why it is so difficult to have evidence-based, logical discussions about abortion and birth control with anti-choice activists. The issue isn’t really abortion.

What is far less well understood, however, is that the consequences of upholding Texas’ law—if, in fact, the Court eventually does that—would be devastating, and would extend far beyond the issue of abortion. (Thus far, as you know, the Court has simply punted—it hasn’t ruled on the constitutionality of the law.)

A decision to allow the empowerment of culture war vigilantes would achieve a longstanding goal of so-called “states rights” fundamentalists: a return to the days when state and local lawmakers could impose their preferred “morality” on their citizens–and not-so-incidentally decide which citizens were entitled to equal rights– without the interference of the federal government.

Such a decision would effectively approve a federalism on steroids, and—I am not engaging in hyperbole here—the effective unraveling of the “United” States.

I used to explain to my students that one of the salutary effects of the incorporation of the Bill of Rights was that it ensured a “floor”–so that when someone moves from New York to Alabama or Texas, they don’t suddenly lose their right to religious liberty or free speech or their protections against unreasonable search and seizure..

Texas’ law strikes a terrifying blow against that principle.

Let me explain why this law created private vigilantes. The idea is that by enlisting private citizens to enforce the law the state can avoid challenges to the bill’s constitutionality. The theory is that, since the state itself won’t be directly involved in enforcing the law, state officials won’t be proper defendants to a lawsuit.

Why does that matter?

What far too many Americans don’t understand about their protections under the Bill of Rights is the requirement of state action–the Bill of Rights protects us against government infringement of our liberties–not against intrusions by private actors. If there hasn’t been state action–government action– there hasn’t been a constitutional violation.

Allowing this gambit to succeed would do much more than leave the most restrictive anti-abortion law in the country in place; it would encourage other states to employ similar tactics–and not just for abortion, but for all sorts of culture war issues and from all political perspectives. As Lawrence Tribe recently warned, California could shift to private enforcement of its gun control regulations, never mind the Second Amendment implications of such restrictions. Vermont could shift to private enforcement of its environmental regulations, never mind the federal pre-emption implications. And the list goes on.

This ploy shouldn’t pass constitutional muster. In law school, I remember studying a 1948 case involving racially-restrictive deed covenants. Those covenants were between private parties, but the Court found state action present because those private deed restrictions could only be enforced with the participation of judges, clerks and other state officials. That case is still good law.

The vigilantes authorized by this legislation may be private citizens, but the law can’t be enforced without involving the apparatus of the state.

The bottom line is that, if successful, this effort would empower zealots of both the right and left.  This is probably not what the idiots in the Texas legislature had in mind, but it would be an almost-certain consequence. Even a more conventional overruling of Roe –a distinct possibility in a case pending from Mississippi—would invite unintended consequences. We can discuss those during Q and A.

Finally, as many of you know, my longstanding preoccupation has been with civic literacy—with the failure of so many Americans to understand their own government. The pandemic has given us a glaring illustration of that ignorance; we have officials and pundits insisting that they have the right to control their own bodies, that government can’t tell them to be vaccinated. Ironically, most of the people making this argument are anti-choice—in other words, they are claiming a right for themselves that they are unwilling to extend to others. But it isn’t only the glaring hypocrisy; they are also wrong. Government has a duty to prevent citizens from harming others, and the Court has recognized the right to mandate vaccination for at least 100 years. A woman who aborts is not a threat to her neighbors; a citizen who refuses to wear a mask or be vaccinated is such a threat–and the law recognizes the distinction even if too many Americans don’t.
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The Bully Pulpit

I recently attended the bat mitzvah of a cousin’s daughter at the synagogue in which I grew up.  My cousin’s daughter did a great job with her Torah portion, but I was particularly struck by the sermon, in which Rabbi Dennis Sasso forcefully and eloquently connected those ancient teachings to America’s contemporary challenges.

I sometimes need to remind myself that for every judgmental scold or religious con-man, there is a religious leader like Rabbi Sasso wrestling with the nature of human community and authentic moral behavior.

He was kind enough to share a copy of his remarks.

 Judaism is not just a set of general principles or lofty ideals. It is the living out of those values in the here and now, in the everyday of human encounter between a person and his/her neighbor, a man and woman, parents and children, elected officials and the people, nation and nation.

And so, in this week’s Torah portion, entitled Mishpatim (“Ordinances”), we have the fleshing out of the Ten Commandments. We find here the beginnings of a constitutional biblical tradition, upon which future post-biblical (rabbinic) legislation will evolve, not just as a faith tradition but as a religion of ethical nationhood.

The Rabbi noted that the book of Exodus contains many laws that mirror those of our civil state, including, most significantly, “laws forbidding the oppression of the powerless, the weak, the widow, the orphan, the poor and the stranger — the disenfranchised members of society.”

The commandment to “love your neighbor” occurs in Leviticus 19. However, the commandment to “love the stranger,” the foreigner, the immigrant, (a much more difficult task) – occurs here twice and 36 times in the Torah (“Love the stranger…” “for you know the heart of the stranger, as you were strangers in the land of Egypt”).

The heart of the sermon–at least to me–was the explicit application of Jewish teaching to matters pending at the Indiana legislature.

Reading through this week’s portion we can find guidance regarding many bills currently before our State and Federal Legislatures.

There is SB 439 – regarding Hate Crime Laws – likely not to pass in Indiana because of the pressure of conservative forces that feign to promote themselves as religious.      Well, they are quite out of sync with the biblical heritage they purport to uphold – a heritage that teaches – “You shall not hate your neighbor in your heart.”

The growing vitriol expressed in words and acts of anti-Semitism, Islamphobia and other ethnic and gender directed prejudice speak of an epidemic of hate that must be contained. We should be alarmed by what is happening to words in our times – particularly in the political and religious arenas. Language has become shrill, offensive and misleading. Words, angry and hostile weapons.

Then there are legislative initiatives to curtail rights for LGBTQ+ citizens and to impose doctrinal understandings of reproductive health and abortion rights. Interestingly, this week’s Torah portion contains the key passage that defines miscarriage and abortion not as murder, but as a civil matter (Ex. 21:22-24).

Abortion is a painful and serious decision to be made by a woman in consultation with her physician, loved ones and in keeping with her religious values. In the Jewish legal and moral tradition, termination of pregnancy is never defined as homicide, and it is not only permissible, but required to protect the life and health of the mother, in some cases even her mental health. In Jewish law, the fetus is not defined as a “person,” with independent legal and moral status, until the moment of delivery. Judaism does not share the view that human life begins at conception. Throughout pregnancy the fetus is potential life, to be honored and protected, but dependent on and subordinate to the life of the mother.

To impose particular doctrinal restrictions on abortion constitutes not only a violation of privacy and civil rights, but a limitation of religious rights, by imposing beliefs and values that counter the faith traditions of others. And certainly to muddle legislation with unscientific and potentially injurious information is a pious fraud.

Consider the higher health risks for women and infants that proposed legislation – which includes threats to cut funds for Planned Parenthood – would involve. Our state’s infant mortality rate, already among the highest in the country, would rise dramatically.

Ironically, some of the same groups that counter hate crime laws, and advance restrictions on health care and civil rights, piously advocate for prayer in public schools and, paradoxically, promote liberalization of gun laws – guns that can kill in schools, domestic settings and hateful social encounters…

Today, our nation struggles with the issue of immigration, our response and responsibilities to the stranger in our midst. Our deepest Jewish convictions tell us that protecting the humanity of immigrants, who have come to the United States to better lives for themselves and their children, puts our communities on a path towards strengthening families and society and ultimately, the moral values of our nation. By all means, we need to ensure the safety of the homeland, and guard the security of our borders, but not in ways that discriminate, intimidate and create a siege mentality and police state.

Keeping families together, allowing immigrants to fully contribute to our communities, providing relief for millions of aspiring Americans from unnecessary deportation and family separation, these are at the heart of the Jewish legislative and moral traditions. It is also the best of the American tradition which we as Jews have helped to shape and from which we have benefited.

The Rabbi closed with this profound and increasingly relevant quote from Abraham Joshua Heschel:

When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; … its message becomes meaningless.

Words applicable to both religion and political ideology–and definitely worth pondering.